Some thoughts on liberal education and the current climate

Andrew Spear

Last November’s election was particularly polarizing. It revealed deep divisions and antagonisms in our culture inspiring everything from fear, panic, and disbelief to optimism and solidarity. I for one admit to having felt the impact both intellectually and emotionally. I’ve struggled, as I think many have, with the question of how to approach the deep divisions we face both reasonably and productively. The liberal arts and sciences represent a rich resource for thinking about these issues and for engaging with each other, so I’m sharing a few thoughts I’ve had about these things here in the spirit of open dialogue: I think the following are things, inspired directly by core values of the liberal arts and sciences, that almost everyone can agree to – common ground in a divisive time – but I would be curious to learn if I am mistaken.

Start with something basic: to be human is to be a being that has beliefs. This applies to us all. What we believe most centrally and most strongly – our moral, religious, scientific, and political convictions – defines us. Such convictions answer for each of us the questions: Who am I? What is my place in the universe? How should I live? They tend to unite us with those who share them and to divide us from those who do not. So believing is personally and socially powerful, and we are all believers.

I think believing creatures like us are fragile. What we believe is fundamental in defining us and guiding how we live, yet we are also fallible: even our deepest convictions can be doubted. So our fragility consists in the fact that what is fundamental in defining and guiding us in life is also continuously subject to the possibility of doubt. Think of St. Paul who, on the road to Damascus, underwent a conversion experience that transformed him from dedicated persecutor to fervent promoter of Christianity. Paul discovered that his central convictions were false. Upheaval in Paul’s beliefs caused upheaval in his life, and no one can reasonably claim to be so certain of their beliefs that it would be impossible to one day (perhaps today?) discover some of them to be similarly mistaken. Due in part to our fragility, confronting strong disagreement makes us uncomfortable: we don’t like being fallible or disagreed with. This makes it tempting to view our own beliefs as more and the beliefs of those who disagree as less reasonable than they are. This dynamic pushes us, often quite unwittingly, toward intolerance and conflict (think of St. Paul’s activities before his conversion).

I propose that part of the ideal of liberal education is precisely to help us learn to cope reasonably with our fragility as believers, and with disagreement. To be liberally educated is to have knowledge and intellectual skills that enable one to use one’s freedom well, as people such as Socrates, Hypatia, Da Vinci, Luther, Galileo, Wollstonecraft, and Martin Luther King Jr. did. Aspiring to such freedom means making it part of our way of life to recognize our fallibility, to reflect critically on our beliefs, and to entertain criticism from others charitably by assuming such critics are reasonable and sincerely interested in figuring out what to believe and how to live. This is central to what the liberal arts and sciences have always taught, but it is extremely relevant now, and we are fortunate to be in a place devoted to its teaching and practice.

At the same time, we should resist attitudes and forces in our culture that would undermine the ideals at the root of liberal education. For if the goal of liberal education is meaningful freedom, then those who undermine it undermine the pursuit of meaningful freedom as well. In particular, we should beware of those who refuse to acknowledge their own fallibility, neither providing nor considering evidence when challenged. Rejecting the need for evidence and the possibility of personal error contradicts basic commitments of the liberal arts and sciences: it is both unreasonable and dangerous. We should also beware of those who summarily refuse to view their critics as reasonable or sincere. Pre-emptive refusal to view another person as reasonable is refusal to respect them as a complete fellow person substantially equal to oneself. A person or group who believes both that they are infallible and that their critics are summarily unreasonable contradicts basic principles of the liberal arts and sciences and should be resisted for this reason. This point applies across the political spectrum.

In short, I think that common facts about us as believing creatures with convictions make the study and practice of the liberal arts and sciences especially valuable for beings like us as we strive to cope with our fragility, and attain meaningful kinds of freedom both individually and as a society. I think these same basic facts provide us with reasons to resist behavior that undermines the basic principles and goals of the liberal arts and sciences, such as someone’s refusal to recognize their own fallibility or preemptive refusal to recognize the rationality of their critics. I think all of this forms a common basis for thinking about and confronting the divisions we currently face. I’d be curious to know if you disagree.